History

Seminole County, FL Jail Fire, June 9, 1975

11 die in Florida prison fire

SANFORD , Fla . ( AP )—Eleven persons, most of them inmates trapped behind bars and screaming for help , died Monday when smoke from a smoldering fire swept the Seminole County Jail, officials said . At least 34 others were injured and admitted to area hospitals. It was like somebody was strangling me , said one inmate . I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t see. I didn’t think we were going to get out. And then I felt someone grab me. I couldn’t believe it . One of the first persons on the scene, Bill Reck, quoted workers in the county courthouse next door as saying that desperate prisoners banged on the walls to call attention to their plight . The smoke was terrible, terrible , said Sanford fire chief George Harriett, who led firemen up to the jail’s second floor/where inmates were trapped in locked cells. If you didn’t have a gas mask you couldn’t survive up there. Capt. J . Q . Galloway, jail shift commander at the time, said without elaboration, There are certain earmarks that point toward arson. He said state fire marshals were investigating. Harriett said the blaze started in a mattress in a hospital cell at the two-story central Florida jail, about 40 miles from Disney World. The heat spread it to a stack of other mattresses , and then it caught some papers and books on fire in an adjoining classroom, he said, The fire was small and contained, Harriett said, but huge billows of suffocating smoke and fumes quickly spread through the facility .

One rescued inmate said: We all laid down and threw mattresses over our faces . We were the lucky; ones . At least one of those reported dead on arrival Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 3.11.28 PMat area hospitals was a corrections officer. Officials withheld identification of the victims pending notification of relatives. Sheriff s spokesman John Spolski said the dead guard apparently was overcome by smoke on his second trip up the jail s narrow stairway to rescue unconscious prisoners. I don’t see how he did it, said Spolski. He went up one time and dragged some men down and then went up again. I tried to go up the stairs about 20 minutes after the fire started and couldn’t make it past three or four steps because of . the smoke . The fire began at 12 : 12 p.m. EDT, Harriett said, and the first units were on the scene within three minutes. The fire chief said at least two things hampered rescue efforts: —The rear entrance to the jail was blocked by more than 100 unclaimed bicycles being stored for an upcoming auction. —Jailers who tried to unlock cells were overcome by smoke , and gas-masked firemen had difficulty obtaining proper keys for cells. Officials initially said the jail elevator was knocked out in a power failure, disrupting rescue efforts. But they later said all inmates had been evacuated before the elevator failed.

 

NFPA Abstract of this Fire:

THE JUNE 1975 FIRE AT THE SEMINOLE COUNTY, FLORIDA, JAIL, IN WHICH 10 INMATES AND 1 STAFF MEMBER DIED, IS DESCRIBED BY THE NATIONAL FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION SPECIALIST WHO INVESTIGATED THE FIRE.

THE TWO-STORY JAIL BUILT IN 1961 WAS MADE OF CONCRETE BLOCK; IT LACKED SPRINKLERS, SMOKE OR FIRE DETECTORS, AND ALARM SYSTEMS. APPARENTLY SET BY A PRISONER, THE FIRE BEGAN IN A STORAGE ROOM CONTAINING CHEMICALLY TREATED URETHANE MATTRESSES WHICH WAS LOCATED NEXT TO TWO SEGREGATED CELLS. THE BURNING MATTRESSES CAUSED A RAPID BUILDUP OF INTENSE HEAT AND TOXIC SMOKE. PRISONERS WERE UNABLE TO ESCAPE FROM THEIR LOCKED CELLS. A NEARBY STANDPIPE HOSE, BREATHING APPARATUS UNITS, AND PORTABLE FIRE EXTINGUISHERS WERE NOT USED. RESCUE ATTEMPTS WERE THWARTED BY MISPLACED JAIL KEYS AND BY BLOCKAGE OF AN EMERGENCY EVACUATION ROUTE. FURTHER INVESTIGATION SHOWED THAT SAFETY MEASURES PREVIOUSLY RECOMMENDED BY THE SEMINOLE COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF FIRE PROTECTION HAD NOT BEEN ADOPTED BY THE COUNTY JAIL ADMINISTRATION. THE FIRE DEMONSTRATED THE NEED FOR PROPER DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION, MAINTENANCE, AND OPERATION OF PRISONS IN ORDER TO MINIMIZE THE POSSIBILITY OF TRAGEDY. IN ADDITION, DETECTION, ALARM AND EXTINGUISHING SYSTEMS, AND PLANNING, TRAINING, AND DRILLING FOR FIRE ISOLATION AND INMATE EVACUATION ARE ALL NEEDED.

 

Referenced: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=61306

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http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1975/06/10/page/3/article/trapped-inmates-die-in-jail-fire